Mary Lou Retton has pneumonia. Here's what to know about the illness

Pneumonia is inflammation caused by an infection in one or both lungs

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News that the former American gymnast Mary Lou Retton, 55, is “fighting for her life” after developing pneumonia has prompted an outpouring of support and donations from her fans, who recall her as a vibrant teenage Olympian and know her now as the devoted mother of four daughters.

The specifics of Retton’s illness haven’t been disclosed, but pneumonia is a common illness that can sometimes turn severe and require hospitalization.

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The Washington Post contacted experts for more information about the symptoms of pneumonia, how it’s treated, how to prevent it and when to seek hospital care. Here’s what we know.

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What do we know about Retton’s health?

Retton, who is 55, has been in the intensive care unit for more than a week, and she isn’t able to breathe on her own, according to a statement from her daughter, McKenna Kelley. Kelley described the illness as “a very rare form” of pneumonia, but did not elaborate.

Kelley said her mother does not have insurance, and the family is raising money on Spotfund to pay Retton’s hospital bills. Spotfund confirmed that the fundraiser has been “vetted and verified.” As of Friday morning, Retton’s family had raised more than US$399,000 from more than 7,200 donors.

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What causes pneumonia?

Pneumonia is inflammation caused by an infection in one or both lungs. In community-acquired pneumonia, the underlying infection typically is caused by a virus or bacteria. Pneumonia resulting from a fungal infection is less common. Rarely, a parasitic infection can also be a cause.

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Other forms of pneumonia can develop from hospital-acquired infections, drug-resistant bacteria or being on a ventilator. Aspiration pneumonia can occur after food or vomit enters your trachea and travels to your lungs, which can also cause an infection.

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What are the symptoms of pneumonia?

Symptoms include coughing, fever, chills and difficulty breathing. Mild cases of pneumonia can take a week to recover from, but serious cases can lead to hospitalization and in some cases intubation.

Pneumonia often begins as an upper respiratory infection, which leads to a cough, a fever or runny nose. But when the infection spreads to the lower respiratory system, causing pneumonia, the cough worsens and shortness of breath can occur, said Judith O’Donnell, a professor of infectious disease at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“You essentially have portions of your lungs that are not working,” O’Donnell said. “They’re not able to bring oxygen into your bloodstream.”

O’Donnell said she has had pneumonia herself. “In addition to just feeling lousy and having fevers, you also are tired,” O’Donnell said. “The simplest tasks, moving around your house to go back and forth to your kitchen or to your bathroom, just feels exhausting.”

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Difficulty breathing, a sharp pain when taking a deep breath and coughing are common signs of pneumonia, said Kenneth N. Olivier, professor of medicine in the division of pulmonary diseases and critical care medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

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Who’s at risk of developing a serious case?

Age is one of the biggest risk factors. People older than 65 years old are far more likely to be hospitalized due to the lower respiratory disease, Olivier said.

“Like for many illnesses, the older we get, the greater our risk of having more serious disease,” he said.

A history of smoking increases risk of developing a serious case of pneumonia. And anyone who has preexisting conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, or those who are immunocompromised, are at a greater risk of hospitalization.

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How common is it?

It’s one of the most common reasons patients are hospitalized.

Jacqueline O’Toole, a pulmonology and critical care physician at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, said there are more pneumonia cases in the fall and winter than in the summer because people tend to be in closer contact during those seasons.

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What is the treatment?

Bacterial pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. Patients with viral pneumonia may recover on their own or be treated with antiviral medications, said Steven Chang, clinical professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

At-home care for pneumonia is similar to what’s recommended for other respiratory illnesses: Rest, take Tylenol and stay hydrated, Chang said. “Most people who get pneumonia are not going to feel well enough to be back to their usual activities for, at minimum, a week,” O’Donnell said.

In severe cases, patients may need supplemental oxygen or be placed on ventilator.

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How does someone protect against pneumonia?

“One of the biggest things is getting your flu shot,” Chang said. Influenza can lower your immune system’s defences and make it more likely that you contract some bacterial infection, which can lead to bacterial pneumonia, Chang said.

The pneumococcal vaccine protects against a bacteria that can cause pneumonia. Anyone older than 65 and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung disease, diabetes, a compromised immune system or other risk factors typically are advised to get the shot, O’Toole said.

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When should someone go to a hospital?

Shortness of breath, a persistent fever or worsening symptoms, especially after taking an antibiotic to treat pneumonia, are all signs a person should call their doctor or go to an emergency room for an evaluation, Olivier said.

“When you start to get shortness of breath with pneumonia, you really need to call your doctor, get to a hospital or an emergency room, somewhere where they can measure your oxygen levels,” O’Donnell said.

For more health news and content around diseases, conditions, wellness, healthy living, drugs, treatments and more, head to – a member of the Postmedia Network.

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Originally posted 2023-10-14 00:38:21.